Charles Frazier discusses his new book'Nightwoods' set in WNC in the 1960s
A few afternoons ago in Asheville, author Charles Frazier was surrounded by the low-key bustle of a small coffee shop and smiling as he described a review. He was happy about it, and not just because “Entertainment Weekly” had liked his latest novel. Frazier was pleased that the critic had enjoyed “Nightwoods” for some of the same reasons he does.
The reviewer had pointed out that, with its delectably constructed sentences and unconventional plot twists, this thriller is not a typical one. That’s just the kind of thing Frazier likes to hear. Surprise is a key element in his work, and it’s also part of the fun.
“I like a certain amount of delightfulness, you know, in a book,” he said, with a friendly grin.
It’s been this way since the beginning, since he began writing the hugely successful “Cold Mountain” in the 1990s and later his second acclaimed book, “13 Moons.” With all of these stories, taking the road less traveled hasn’t been an effort to be quirky or cute. It’s been a product of him creating beautifully complex characters and settings and sentences, and then striving to be true to this finely crafted world.
“Plot is not really where I start with a book,” he said. “It’s the place and the people.”
That’s why, while “Nightwoods” has several elements that readers might find familiar, it doesn’t deal with them in any predictable way. The piece is sure to stray from whatever genre bookstores will place it in.
The story takes place in small-town North Carolina in the 1960s and follows Luce, a damaged young woman who’s the caretaker of a lodge. She’s full of pain — even before her sister is murdered and she’s left to care for her two young nieces. Soon, the girls’ stepfather (who is also their mother’s killer, recently released due to a hung jury) is also thrown into the mix. He believes the twins have something of his, and he wants it back.
While some writers would feel compelled to wrap up such a story cheaply and seamlessly, Frazier would never deign to end a book in some short-cut fashion just for resolution’s sake. He knows that human drama is more complicated and more interesting than that, even if pop culture doesn’t always remember such things.
“So many movies, and now books, start out with a fair amount of attention to character,” he explained, “but the resolution of the conflicts that are raised, the resolution is the reaction, not character.”
Yeah, he hates that. So, he always bucks the seductive trend of easy answers and goes for something a little more nourishing.
Never working from an outline, Frazier calls his writing an “intuitive process,” during which he slowly builds a novel piece-by-piece for years.
“It does not ever just come out,” he said, of his famously enjoyable turns of phrase. “It’s always a job of construction, of constructing the world of the book, making up these people with enough detail to make them feel real. That doesn’t just come naturally to me, or it doesn’t come easily.”
This slow-burn approach to novels is representative of his career as a whole. By the time “Cold Mountain” came out in 1997, Frazier was in his mid 40s and had already had “a whole other kind of life,” he said. He had a wife and a daughter and had spent years slogging through teaching English to college freshmen after earning a PhD in the subject. He felt stifled, and it wasn’t until a fateful conversation with fellow writer Kaye Gibbons that he gave himself permission to bow out of the academic rat race and work full-time on his novel.
Many years into this second career of his, he jokes that being a novelist is “a weird job.”
“What are your materials?” he asked. “You’re just sitting there, staring at a screen, trying to make this thing that’s going to feel real and feel compelling enough that people keep turning pages.”
While he admits that the life of a novelist can be a monastic, seven-day-a-week existence, he seems content, and not just because of his immense popularity. He sees the fame he has enjoyed, especially when “Cold Mountain” was made into a movie, as “being a nice reward for hard work,” he said. But it’s clearly not something he puts too much stock into.
He sees those glitzy parties he was invited to then as being part of a make-believe world, one that can be exciting, but only in sporadic doses.
“It’s fun to visit, but I don’t know if I want to stay there,” he said.
Instead, he’d rather be out of the limelight for the most part, riding his bike or hiking, basically enjoying his own routine. When he’s in Asheville, his part-time home, he estimates that he spends five days a week out in nature. During that time he will specifically not be thinking about his book.
Instead, he’ll be “just kind of watching the change of seasons, all those little signals in the woods of those natural cycles,” he said.
While often these things will work themselves into his books, that’s not the point. The idea is to live his life, the life that exists far outside his novels.
“Think about work when you work and not all the rest of the time,” he said.
Though he has no idea yet where his next novel will take him, he seems sure that it will unveil itself to him in due time. Like all of his other books, its creation will be a gradual and sometimes aggravating process, but Frazier seems comfortable with this slow, methodical path. He finds joy, in fact, in building his books sentence-by-sentence. Even after years and years in front of a computer screen, he still loves to create a phrase that can charm him. His words, like his characters and plot lines, constantly surprise him. He doesn’t know where they come from, but he sounds grateful for them. Perhaps more than anything, they’re the reason he writes.
“As long as I’m getting those sentences, I’ll probably keep on working at it,” he said, simply.
Charles Frazier’s new novel, “Nightwoods,” was recently released and is available at local bookstores, including Blue Ridge Books, 152 S. Main St. in Waynesville. To get copy, call 456-6000 or visit www.blueridgebooksnc.com.